The ice curtain that divides US families from Russian cousins

  • Published
Little Diomede village with Russia in the background

Two islands in the Bering Straits, one Russian, one American, are barely two miles apart. Only a few military observation posts remain on the Russian island, but a community of Eskimos lives on the US island. After the Cold War they hoped to resume regular contact with Russian relatives - but now the chances seem to be fading again.

Frances Ozenna points to a snapshot on the wall of her 19-year-old daughter, Rebecca. "You see how fair she is. That's from our Russian side. From my great-grandfather. She came out beautiful, didn't she?"

Ozenna is an Eskimo tribal leader for the island of Little Diomede on America's western border. Her small home is built on to a steep hillside, and her living-room window looks straight across a narrow stretch of water to Russia just over two miles (about 4km) away - the sister island, Big Diomede.

Image source, Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor
Image caption,
Frances Ozenna has relatives from the Russian island of Big Diomede, just two miles away
Image source, Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor
Image caption,
Her daughter Rebecca takes after the Russian side of the family

"We know we have relatives over there," she says. "The older generations are dying out, and the thing is we know nothing about each other. We are losing our language. We speak English now and they speak Russian. It's not our fault. It's not their fault. But it's just terrible."

The people of this Bering Strait region still see themselves as one people and the border as an irritant. It was first drawn up in 1867 when America bought Alaska from a cash-strapped Tsarist Russia. But no-one took much notice then. Families lived on both islands and criss-crossed back and forth until 1948 when the border was suddenly closed. The Soviet military moved on to Big Diomede and the civilians were forcibly resettled on the Siberian mainland.

"If we could get reunification going, it would bring a lot to our peace of minds here," says Ozenna. "But I don't think it's going to happen."

Media caption,

Tribal leader Robert Soolook talks about life on Little Diomede

All of the 80 people who live on this remote island have relations somewhere in Russia. A quarter of a century ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was a glimmer of hope that they would be able to meet again. Robert Soolook, another Diomede tribal leader, took part in an expedition that travelled through the Siberian east-coast province of Chukotka looking for lost relatives.

"By skis and dog sled we covered 20-25 miles a day and went to 16 villages," he remembers. "I found relatives on my mother's side in three villages, and her favourite cousin - Luda - she was in Uelen. It was very special. I was with family again."

Soolook's small home is perched on the hillside, just down from Ozenna's. There are no roads or vehicles. The mainly grey clapboard buildings are linked by walkways and steps.

In the middle of a wall decorated with family photographs is one of his mother who died in January and next to her a portrait of another Russian cousin, known as Tooloopa, with long wild hair and sharp, piercing eyes.

Image source, Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor
Image caption,
Robert Soolook with a picture of his late mother
Image source, Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor
Image caption,
His Russian Uncle Tooloopa

Among Soolook's books is one on learning Russian, and hanging among his coats and rifles is an old green and red military cap given to him by a Soviet soldier. Other pictures show him as a sergeant in the elite army unit, the Eskimo Scouts - in Alaska, unlike Canada or Greenland, the term "Eskimo" is considered correct. Now retired from the military, one of his jobs is to keep watch on the Russian territory for any hostile activity.

"We see their ships there," he says. "And helicopters. On the north side of the Russian island there's a military base and when we're out hunting in the boat and get too close to island they either send off a warning shot or holler at us telling us to go back."

Image caption,
Heading out to hunt walrus

Over the years, hopes continued that the more entwined relationship between the Russia and the West would loosen up the border. But they have been dashed by the Ukraine crisis and by Russia's military build-up.

"They've established a new Arctic command. They're re-opening Cold-War-era bases here," says Col Patrick Carpentier of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad), the joint US-Canadian operation tasked with protecting the border. "All these things certainly cause concern."

But compared to Russia's border with the European Union, this one is comparatively relaxed. The border itself is unmarked with no national flag flying on either side. The number of intercepts of Russian aircraft, although recently up, has stayed at the same average, 10 a year, for decades. The aircrew categorise the border as non-hostile and have seen none of the aggression experienced by their colleagues in Europe.

"The Russian aircrews act in a thoroughly professional manner," says Col Charles Butler, an F-22 fighter pilot and Norad operations commander. "They are always outside our sovereign airspace so they are perfectly legal."

It is far from certain that this relaxed atmosphere will continue. The Diomede islands lie just below the Arctic Circle, where vast quantities of natural resources are becoming accessible thanks to climate change and the melting of the ice. According to US geological surveys, the Arctic accounts for 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its natural gas.

The much shorter northern shipping routes which go through the Bering Strait are also opening up. Five years ago, just four ships took the Arctic route to Europe instead of the much longer one through the Panama Canal. Three years later, 71 ships carried 1.3 million tonnes on the same route and by 2020, it's expected the annual cargo will be 30 million tonnes.

At the same time there are long-standing, ambitious plans to improve cross-border links, including building a 64-mile-long tunnel underneath the Bering Strait. The Kremlin officially approved it in 2011 and it has support from the American side. "We like the idea," says Craig Fleener, Arctic adviser to the Alaskan State government. "We're barely connected to the rest of the world and our infrastructure is limited. This would give us direct access to the Asian markets."

But so far, little has happened and there are no new initiatives to reunite the people of the Diomede islands with their relatives in Russia.

"Whenever Putin and Obama are at odds, it has a trickle-down effect to what we're trying to do here," says Tandy Wallack, who runs a project matching the divided families. "We keep thinking they're going to stop us altogether, but we manage to keep going."

Technically, the villagers are allowed visa-free travel. But they have to get an added layer of permission because Chukotka, where their relatives live, remains a highly-restricted area for security reasons.

"Take a look," says Soolook, bringing out a high-powered telescope and placing it on the ledge outside his home. "See there. How they're watching us." He points across the water. "On top of that ridge on that abandoned house and further north. See those."

Clearly visible on a hill is a small Russian observation post.

"It shouldn't be like this," he says, closing the telescope and taking it inside. "We've been here for thousands of years, before the English came, the Americans, the Russians, before any governments and regulations separated us from our families. This border is breaking our hearts."

Image source, Sue Steinacher
Image caption,
In winter the islands are sometimes linked by ice

Curtains on all sides

  • The term "Iron Curtain" is used to describe the political and ideological barrier that isolated the then-Soviet Union from the West during the Cold War.
  • The term has since been applied to other borders with Communist countries, such as the Bamboo Curtain (East Asia), and the Cactus Curtain (Cuba).
  • In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev's official spokesman termed the Alaska-Siberia frontier the ''Ice Curtain''.
  • Now, as the US-Russia relationship deteriorates again, there is talk of a "New Ice Curtain".

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